Sarah Silverman: ‘Jokes I made 15 years ago I'd not make today’

Sarah Silverman’s comedy has always aimed a laser into the dark corners of sexism, racism and religion. But now she’s using her wit to make sense of the huge issues facing America. Sophie Heawood meets her in Hollywood

Arriving at the Hollywood studio complex where Sarah Silverman has her office, I am surprised to find nobody can tell me where it is. She’s one of the biggest comedians in America, but it takes 15 minutes of shrugged shoulders and wrong turns before I find a door with a handwritten sign: “If you feel unwell turn around and go home and rest! Do not walk thru this door! You are loved, feel better! Sarah!” So far, so adorable.

Germs and visitors might struggle to make their way past reception, but dogs are clearly welcomed like sacred Indian cows here: two of them trot past me unaccompanied. The animals have just left a script meeting in the writers’ room, soon to be followed by a gaggle of comedy writers, including Silverman herself, who is wearing glasses and stopping to stare at her phone. Once installed on the sofa in her own room, with an assistant bringing her black tea, she admits she didn’t realise this interview was in person, hence the phone. “But you’re here!” she says, getting her legs comfy on the furniture. “Great!” Her impromptu welcome is so friendly and her smile so full of shiny teeth, that it only occurs to me afterwards that she might be lying through them – surely nobody wants to be surprised by a journalist.

But then Silverman has changed. Not only is she more successful than ever, with a new stand-up special A Speck of Dust on Netflix, a new series called I Love You, America on Hulu, and a straight acting role in tennis movie Battle of the Sexes, but she has combined anti-depressants with years of therapy. She seems more positive, and determined to move beyond her “liberal bubble” to get to understand Trump’s America.

She’s even become friends with Megan Phelps-Roper, who used to be part of the Westboro Baptist Church. “She didn’t think they were evil – she thought she was doing God’s work. I think it’s OK to have empathy with people doing terrible things.”

Smash hit: (from left) Sarah Silverman, Martha MacIsaac and Natalie Morales in Battle of the Sexes.
Smash hit: (from left) Sarah Silverman, Martha MacIsaac and Natalie Morales in Battle of the Sexes. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox

Not that any of this means Silverman is going soft – she is also speaking her truth to power, rousing her 12m Twitter followers with her daily backlash against the president. “He’s the only person I’ve ever blocked,” she says. “So I can see him, but he can’t see me. Well,” she adds, “unless he logs out and logs back in again.” We ponder the likelihood of him doing such a thing.

Where once Silverman used to make Paris Hilton blowjob jokes, she now uses that biting wit to take chunks out of the bigger issues facing America. Her latest stand-up deals at some length with abortion, with her discovery that sperm have a sense of smell, so shouldn’t male masturbation be regulated by pro-lifers?

On I Love You, America she travels to the homes of Trump voters and listens to their views, before getting into good-natured arguments with them, “once all of our porcupine needles are down. Then I’m able to go: ‘Brandy! You cannot still think that Obama was born in the Serengeti.’ Because by this point we’re family, and then they’re more open to information, whereas arguing and spewing facts in their face… facts don’t change people’s minds. Emotions do. And the thing is that facts have now become opinions. And people are also taking their opinions and making them into facts.” Not that she finds this phenomenon remotely funny. “Did you see that fucking Scaramucci post: ‘Were Jews killed in the Holocaust?’ There was literally an official poll, basically, did the Holocaust happen? Like it’s a matter of opinion. We live in a time when truth just has no currency at all.”

She has also acquired a rescue dog, Mary, who has just walked into the room to sit on my lap. Silverman hasn’t trained her and has no rules. “She sleeps in bed with me – she’s my roommate. I’m not going to tell her what to do.” Except for sex, when the dog must disappear, “because she likes to get near my boyfriend’s [Welsh actor Michael Sheen] butt, so that’s a good reason to take her out of the room.”

With all of this renewed energy, it’s quite exciting to be in Silverman HQ. Except it turns out she doesn’t own this place – Hulu have lent it to her for the show, along with the assistant, “which is incredible, I never had an assistant before!” she says.

But you must need an office, I say.

“What do I need an office for?” she replies. “No one needs an office any more.”

But you’re so prolific, I tell her.

“Well it doesn’t mean I’m not prolific if I don’t have an assistant. What are you gonna write about if you have someone doing your errands? You kind of have to do your own errands.”

‘Trying to understand someone’s pathology is not a waste of time’: marching against Trump in New  York.
‘Trying to understand someone’s pathology is not a waste of time’: marching against Trump in New
Photograph: Pacific Press/Getty Images

Even your own dry cleaning? I ask. Silverman looks baffled, glancing at her grey hoodie with her name embroidered on it, ripped jeans and Converse trainers. She doesn’t use dry cleaning. “I did get a business manager,” she admits. “We went over my yearly spending and he said: ‘You spend the least amount on clothes of any client I’ve ever had, male or female, by far.’ I live in a little apartment, the washer dryer is in the hallway and I share it with the whole floor. I like being alone, but I like having people close.”

Silverman is one of very few women, and indeed people, to have made it to this level in LA, and her persona is a loud one, but she wears her power both calmly and proudly. The Harvey Weinstein scandal broke a fortnight before we met, and has been growing ever since, with daily news of further rapes and assaults across the industry. I point out that this has been a horrible two weeks for women in Hollywood. “No,” replies Silverman, still smiling. “It’s probably been the best two weeks for women in Hollywood ever. It’s a better two weeks than the silence of the past. I mean it’s finally exposing it. The enabled fucking monsters are gonna think twice now. And that’s what it’s all about,” she says. “Be scared,” she adds, addressing the exploiters. She asks me what today’s latest developments are, because, “It’s crazy, working on the show I can only catch up on the news at night so I end up sitting on the side of my bathtub, just scrolling.”

Increasingly interested in everyone’s psychology, Silverman wants to discuss how these men become that way, and who has allowed them to. “I’m not trying to have empathy for Harvey Weinstein, he’s clearly a monster, but monsters are made. Listen, we spent the past 60 years, especially Jews, trying to figure out the pathology of a Hitler. So to understand someone’s pathology is not a waste of time.” She has wanted to join in with #metoo, “but I didn’t want to pull away from it because so many maniacs from the far right jump on me when I say my stuff. It’s not that I need to be heard on this – I just would want to add my voice – but I wondered if maybe that would be unhelpful.”

The first penis she ever saw belonged to her boss when she was an 18-year-old waitress in her native New Hampshire. He called her into his office “and I was literally shaking, thinking I was in trouble, but he was just asking me benign questions – until I saw that he was fully jerking off in front of me. And I just said…” her voice fades to a whimper: ‘I have to clean the popcorn machine,’ and I left and I never told anyone. For years. But of course those guys know who to pick on. They don’t pick on me now.”

I mention a line she used in her Jesus is Magic tour in 2005: “I was raped by a doctor. Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” She looks panicked when I mention it, and replies quickly: “Comedy is not evergreen! There are jokes I made 15 years ago that I would absolutely not make today, because I am less ignorant than I was. I know more now than I did. I change with new information.”

‘Facts don’t change people’s minds. Emotions do’: a scene from I Love You, America.
‘Facts don’t change people’s minds. Emotions do’: a scene from I Love You, America. Photograph: Robyn Von Swank/Hulu/Everett Collection

The thing is, I say – and I suppose this is where comedy gets very complicated – I actually brought that line up because it’s one of the funniest things I have ever heard.

“Oh!” she says, visibly relieved. “Thank you.” She has made jokes involving race in the past, but perhaps won’t do so again, after a negative response. “Just cos I am liberal and I say I’m making a character study of an ignorant person – the intention was good, but whatever. Now I know more about this phrase ‘the liberal bubble’, I know that saying ‘I’m not racist, so I can be racist to show racism’… well social media taught me that racism doesn’t need me to help people understand racism, because it’s everywhere.”

Silverman, one of four daughters, started in comedy as a teenager in New Hampshire and moved to study at NYU, but dropped out after spending more time on the New York comedy circuit than in college. In her memoir, The Bedwetter, she remembers being friends with Louis CK when they were both just starting out and how she’d call him in the middle of the night to talk her down from a bad acid trip, or the time they took all their clothes off and threw them down the stairwell in his apartment building for a dare – 12 times in a row. (The New York Times hadn’t covered his alleged sexual assaults of women at the time we met. He didn’t come up in our conversation, but last week she acknowledged the story on her show: “It’s a real mind fuck because I love Louis, but Louis did these things. Both of those statements are true, so I just keep asking myself, can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?”)

Eventually she would make The Sarah Silverman Program, a show that ran on Comedy Central from 2007 to 2010, but, prior to that, the series she spent writing for Saturday Night Live was critical. I ask what it was like back then, before she was in charge of the writers’ room. Did she get talked down by male voices?

Two of a kind: with partner Michael Sheen.
Two of a kind: with partner Michael Sheen. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Of course I did,” she says. “1993 doesn’t sound so long ago, but it’s so different ever since Tina Fey became head writer, which changed the whole world there. We didn’t have computers and the women’s room was locked and we had to use a key. The men’s room wasn’t.”

Because there were so few women working on the show, right?

“No, it was locked so we didn’t get raped in there. Like instead of, ‘Don’t rape!’ it’s, ‘There’s a key for the women’s room!’”

I am dumbfounded. They locked the toilets so other people working on Saturday Night Live couldn’t rape you?

“Please don’t make that the headline,” she says. “It was just a very different time. And it’s exciting how different it is now.”

Battle of the Sexes stars Emma Stone as 1970s tennis champion Billie Jean King, and Silverman plays her manager, Gladys Heldman. The film has a largely female cast, which is part of that exciting difference of today. Silverman usually turns down roles in big groups, because the simple logistics of filming will get “super boring, but this was the most fun movie. Emma Stone is a cinephile, she understands every part of film-making – I never once saw her with her phone. She’s like a top-shelf woman of substance. And I am a superfan of Andrea Riseborough.”

On playing Heldman, she says: “It’s so funny, because when I was reading it I went, gah, she’s so outspoken and external, she has no inner life, I can’t relate to this character – and Michael [Sheen] was like: ‘Are you fucking serious, that’s you!’”

Wearing a pink coat with Mary the rescue dog pearing out
‘We’ve raised an entire generation to worship money at any cost, no matter how it’s made’: with Mary, her rescue dog. Photograph: Ramona Rosales/August

Silverman tells me Heldman’s real life ended in tragedy, though the film doesn’t show this. Given a terminal diagnosis, she took a pistol out of her handbag and shot herself dead, but the diagnosis turned out to be wrong.

It is such a shocking tale that I find myself laughing. “You,” says Silverman, “are a bad person!”

The film documents King’s match against male tennis champion Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carell) in 1973, viewed on TV by 90m people at the time, with his fans proudly wearing T-shirts saying: “Chauvinist Pig”. We discuss how not much has changed now – the “Make America Great Again” hats say a similar thing, only now it’s in code.

“We thought the film was gonna be this big celebration movie that would come out during our first female presidency – this was before Hillary lost. Instead, it’s this harrowing reminder that history repeats itself, and then gets worse.” Silverman supported Bernie Sanders, who “inspired” her, but she was still “psyched” to vote for Clinton.

She is momentarily saddened. “I look at Trump and the billionaire oligarchs he surrounds himself with as addicts. I do believe they are addicted to wealth, and that wealth addiction is no different from crack addiction. It fills an empty void. They will sell their grandmothers. They’re literally selling our entire country’s health for more. I remember Garry Shandling saying in 2007 that when we put people in office who are addicted to money and power, we might as well be giving a bunch of cokeheads a mountain of cocaine and saying: ‘Divide this equally among your people.’ I see it proven true every day. And we’ve raised an entire generation to worship money at any cost, no matter how it’s made.”

I ask, if you carry on down this path of moral and political righteousness, is there a risk that you won’t be funny? Do all comedians fear they might lose their edge if they become too nice?

“100%,” she admits. “I think it’s brave to venture into empathy and beauty and humanity in comedy. But it’s not easy.”

As we say our goodbyes, Mary the dog trots off down the corridor to pay some visits and Silverman asks if we can hug. I mention that she seems happy, glowing, in fact. Why?

“This is going to sound obnoxious,” she replies, “but Mom always said be your own best friend, and I really, really mastered that. There is no one I’d rather hang out with,” she points at herself, “than this guy.”

And there it is, the formula for being Sarah Silverman; the secret weapon that so many other comedians lack. She actually likes herself.

Battle of the Sexes is released in cinemas on 24 November


Sophie Heawood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Meet comedian Amy Schumer, the sneaky feminist honesty bomb
She’s been showered with awards, has millions of views on YouTube and ‘blew away’ Trainwreck director Judd Apatow. Is Amy Schumer the funniest woman on the planet?

Tim Lewis

02, Aug, 2015 @9:30 AM

Article image
'Gloriously daft': Steve Martin at 75 by Sarah Silverman, Lucy Porter, David Baddiel and more
He’s a master of slapstick, a surrealist clown, the don of comic film roles from Roxanne to The Jerk. As he turns 75, comics including Reginald D Hunter and Rose Matafeo pay tribute to the hilarious majesty of Steve Martin

Paul Fleckney

11, Aug, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Amy Schumer: ‘I’m not invincible. I need to slow down’
Outrageously rude and shockingly funny, Amy Schumer has always made her audiences gasp. She talks to Sophie Heawood about falling in love, one-night stands and going nuts on stage

Sophie Heawood

22, Apr, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Ricky Gervais: 'It’s always about people, it’s always about ego'
The 54-year-old comedian releases two films this year – but, as he tells Tim Lewis, he remains firmly in the boss’s chair

Tim Lewis

17, Apr, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Nick Frost: ‘I have a beautiful life at the moment’
Nick Frost has come a long way since the cult TV series Spaced, but despite a string of hit movies, the comedian feels he’s never far away from flipping burgers. Here, he talks about ghost busting, male bonding with Simon Pegg and wrestling – not just with his demons

Tim Jonze

10, Mar, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Comedians and their parents: Sarah Silverman and father Donald

As soon as she could talk, Sarah Silverman's dad taught her the worst words. Is it any wonder she turned out the way she did, the comedian tells Hadley Freeman?

Hadley Freeman

14, Dec, 2013 @9:00 AM

Article image
Sarah Silverman fans make mincemeat of Variety scribe

Brian Logan: TV writer Brian Lowry in hot water, Reginald Hunter says being called misogynist is 'rude' and Omid Djalili tries to crack America – again

Brian Logan

26, Nov, 2013 @4:21 PM

Article image
The 50 best comedians of the 21st century
From apocalyptic standup Frankie Boyle to the many hilarious faces of Tina Fey, Steve Coogan, Sharon Horgan and Kristen Wiig, we present the funniest people of the era

Hannah J Davies, Paul Fleckney, Harriet Gibsone, Brian Logan and Stuart Heritage

18, Sep, 2019 @2:45 PM

Article image
Sarah Millican's dirty laugh – interview

When her husband left her, Sarah Millican's unusual response was to tour Britain trying to make people laugh. The comic tells Stephanie Merritt about her Geordie toughness, the quiet humour of her miner father – and the absurdities of sex

Stephanie Merritt

13, Nov, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
'I hate talking about class': Zawe Ashton on acting, privilege and being bullied
Best known for Fresh Meat, she now stars with Tom Hiddleston in Pinter’s Betrayal. Zawe Ashton talks about bullying, Michelle Obama and why she finds language such a turn on

Martha Hayes

03, Mar, 2019 @8:00 AM